Learned by Heart

Image of Learned by Heart
Release Date: 
August 29, 2023
Little, Brown & Company
Reviewed by: 

"Donoghue has created a vivid world here, the confined lives of ambitious girls, some manipulative, some kind, but all keenly aware of the social strata containing them. . . . Can love be enough to make a difference?"

Emma Donoghue has done a massive amount of research for her historical novel based on two teenage girls at a British boarding school in the early days of the 19th century. Eliza Raines and Anne Lister both left a generous literary trail, Eliza in many letters, Lister in her coded diary. Lister is now better known to the public, thanks to the BBC drama series Gentleman Jack, which is based on her life. Eliza, however, will be a new character to most, a girl whose father worked for the East India Company, amassing a fortune in India, along with a common-law Indian wife and two daughters. With both parents dead, the girls are sent to be educated in England, and given that they have a notable inheritance, they stand a chance of being accepted in British society, despite their darker skin color.

Donoghue tells her story through Eliza's voice in alternating chapters. Most of the action happens in 1805 and 1806, when Eliza and Lister (as she prefers to be called) meet at school and fall in love, developing an intensely passionate relationship. The other short chapters date from 1815, taking the form of pleading letters from the now-adult Eliza to Lister. The older Eliza is writing from a mental institution, making the reader wonder when and why this breakdown happened. That, in fact, is the main narrative tension driving the plot, but it's one that doesn't get answered. Reading the author's note helps, but the main story gives no clue, no kind of closure or satisfying ending.

Instead the book focuses squarely on the tightly intimate world of a girls' boarding school, where status is everything. Each girl knows precisely where she stands in the school hierarchy, depending on family background and wealth. Talent and intelligence don't seem to enter in as factors. Until Lister arrives with her sharp wit and startling broad knowledge. She shows Eliza how someone on the edges of the aristocracy, someone with not much money, can still matter.

"Confidence—is that what arms Lister? . . . She may not be good at everything—her drawing's too fast to be correct, her flute fingering clumsy—but she's interested in everything, and remembers everything. Some of the Seniors (only half mockingly) refer to her as Lexicon Lister, or the school Solomon."

Lister is a sharply drawn character, Eliza much less so. We see how hard Eliza works to follow the rules, to be accepted, to belong to this society that has so many barriers against her, but not much beyond that. Is she intellectually curious? What subjects interest her most? History? Science? She seems mostly a blank slate, waiting for Lister to draw on her, to make her feel seen and valuable.

We see, too, what a seething cauldron the social world of the school is, how the smallest detail is weighed and measured by the other girls. And it's these social constraints and values that matter most to all the characters, including Lister, try as she might to act above it all.

Eliza, at least, realizes the impact these relationships have on her: "Left alone in the courtyard, Eliza finds herself thinking again that school is not a rehearsal for life's play. Not for Hetty, nor for Eliza and Lister, nor any of them. It's the first act of the piece, performed only once. It comes to Eliza that she'll be reliving these brief days for the rest of her life."

Donoghue has created a vivid world here, the confined lives of ambitious girls, some manipulative, some kind, but all keenly aware of the social strata containing them. Some may find these walls suffocatingly narrow, but others will find Eliza's and Lister's passion enough to carry them through. The question is, Can love be enough to make a difference?